Comedy relies on whimsical shocks and risks for audiences to achieve moments of exhilarating relief from everyday challenges and existential dread.
And the stage doesn’t get any more intriguing than having a socially conscious daughter of an Iranian-born Israeli Jew and the son of Holocaust survivors from Romania cracking jokes about Israel’s decades-long military occupation of Palestine in fluent Arabic.
“No one can guarantee me that the world is going to love a Jewish Iranian comedian that is an ally to the Palestinians with her comedy, but this is what I’m choosing to give to the world,” says Israeli satirist, Noam Shuster-Eliassi.
“It’s the only thing I can do right to repair this place that’s so haunted by tragedy and despair.”
Before pursuing a career in comedy, Noam worked as the co-director of Interpeace, an organisation founded by the United Nations (UN) that consisted of meeting with hardline settlers who live in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Criticising the UN’s traditional approach to peacemaking, the 34-year-old comedienne believes she was “limited” and “cautious” due to the serious work atmosphere and position she led.
She spoke at conferences around the world in attempts to guide her generation of Israelis to pursue a more progressive course until her career took an abrupt turn in 2017.
“I was working on projects that counter extremism in Israeli societies. Spoiler – I failed,” she jokes. “So when I was told by the management that I have 30 days to shut down the programme, it’s like my dreams I kept locked at the backdoor came knocking.”
“I finally got to use all the jokes I’ve been writing down in the conferences I had lined up in those 30 days before shutting the programme, and I noticed how people were listening differently.”
She described how she finally felt free to speak about things she considered taboo including joking about Jews and Arabs, Ashkenazi Jews and Mizrahi Jews.
Humour can be part of a powerful strategy in challenging oppression. What seems to provoke amusement is when things are turned upside down and are no longer what the majority perceive them as.
Noam is the embodiment of this.
“Arabs couldn’t believe there is a Jewish Israeli with perfect Arabic that is actually criticising Israel in Arabic,” she says.
“Even still, when I’m on stage sometimes, Palestinians in the audience are suspicious, they don’t know what to make of me and question if I’m a fraud. So I’m always walking on a very thin line but the best part is you grabbing the mic and letting it all out. People who are very far away from me with their political thoughts have fun in my shows. They hear something new and connect with me, it’s my way of still believing that there is work here for me to do.”
Having grown up speaking Hebrew and Arabic among Palestinians and Jews who live together in the village of Neve Shalom, also known as the Oasis of Peace, near Jerusalem, the entertainer of mixed Romanian and Iranian heritage learnt to celebrate and respect both Jewish and Palestinian cultures whilst demanding justice and freedom for Palestine.
It comes as no surprise that her identity has always confused people.
“The abnormalities in the ways which I grew up became normal at some point,” she says.
“Mixing Hebrew and Arabic, knowing that Israeli Independence Day is no longer just Israeli independence day, it is the Catastrophe Day of my neighbours and I need to learn about it, acknowledge it, commemorate it with them and learn about it. I realised there is something happening here but I embraced it and I wouldn’t have wanted to grow up in another way, though it would’ve been easier.”
Noam’s Iranian grandmother and mother migrated to Israel in 1957. Her father was the child of Romanian Holocaust survivors. She shares her fascination with her family’s Iranian past, which believes was kept hidden as they settled into life in Israel.
“I am an Israeli Jewish girl, right. But I do feel like this identity description narrows me down to something. I am much more than this.”
“My mother was born in Iran. I’m an Iranian Jew, it’s a huge part of my identity. My dad was born in Jerusalem and he is the son of Holocaust survivors from Romania, that is a huge part of my identity. I was raised with Palestinians, that is a huge part of my identity. The attempt of Israel labels us all as Israeli. I don’t eat Israeli food in my home, I eat Persian food that my mum cooks.”
My mother speaks Farsi to her sisters, I speak Arabic with my Palestinian friends and do comedy in Arabic, what is Israeli about all this? It’s not! I think the identity boxes that we are born into here do not fit me because they have been systematically erasing not only the Palestinian identity, but also my Mizrahi Jewish identity.
The subject of the recently-released short film by Al Jazeera, Reckoning with Laughter, Noam was being documented, providing an insight into how she navigates the “mess” of her daily life, which consists of her experience being diagnosed with coronavirus.
During her return to Israel from the United States, where she had received a Harvard fellowship to develop her comedy show titled, Coexistence My Ass, Naom was sent to a quarantine hotel, where she witnessed Israelis and Palestinians bonding over their shared confinement.
The absurdity of it all fueled her political humour to thrive as she performed stand-up shows some nights in the lobby.
Only comedy, she says, allows her to address the mess of feeling “choked”. She noted how it’s a tool that reaches millions of people, particularly those whose minds are otherwise inaccessible to conventional political communication.
Israel’s latest bombing campaign against Gaza, which killed at least 254 Palestinians including 66 children in the space of 11 days, reinforced her role as an activist in comedy taking a stand against Israel’s human rights violations against Palestinians.
“It’s part of my activism now. When I want to say something, I use humour. It’s usually the best way to reach people and make them listen even if I’m misunderstood. The world has seen enough extremism coming from here,” she says.
“The extreme attacks this past May was the first biggest crisis that happened between Jews and Palestinians since the start of my career in comedy and it proved the importance of my role as an artist that chooses to be outspoken and a loud ally for the Palestinians – this might cost me to lose a lot of people but also gain a lot of more supporters.”
“My voice is powerful and meaningful. Even though I gain an audience and exposure it’s also important on many other levels that are beyond me, it’s important to the future of Jews and Palestinians on this land.”